I’m always on the lookout for people who write about literature sensibly, using their own judgment but not attacking received wisdom just to be different, and taking useful insights from various theoretical approaches without tying themselves to any particular one. I’ve found another such in Leonid Livak, a professor of Russian literature at the University of Toronto whose How It Was Done In Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject (and ends with a tour de force comparison of Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that made me wonder why Gide is not even mentioned in the Garland Companion to Nabokov or Boyd’s biography). I’m now reading his chapter “Russian Modernism and the Novel” from A History of the Modernist Novel, and I thought I’d share this passage, which demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to insist sternly on ignoring all extratextual factors when talking about literature:
Students of Russian modernism find themselves in a bind. Striving to overcome Soviet bias, they rely on the resonance of texts in their interpretive communities; but by doing so they internalize the factional fault lines of contemporary artistic life, uncritically elevating them to the status of classification standards. Do modernist accolades to [Sologub’s] The Petty Demon reflect its qualitative superiority to the vilified [Artsybashev’s] Sanin and [Verbitskaya’s] Keys to Happiness, or Sologub’s privileged place in the literary field? An argument could be made that Sologub’s dramatization of modernist philosophical commonplaces is as vulgarizing as Artsybashev’s: witness their concurrent marketplace success, echoed by Verbitskaia’s bestseller, subtitled “a modern novel” and equipped with not one but two epigraphs from Nietzsche. Factionalism is as germane to modernism as ideological bias to Marxism. Both shape the classification of texts. Take Mikhail Kuzmin’s Wings (1906), a novel that, today, flanks The Petty Demon by virtue of expressing the “new sensibility” through an aesthetic and philosophical apologia of sexual deviance more daring than in Gide’s The Immoralist (1902). Gide’s elliptical linkage of pederasty to a hero’s spiritual renascence bursts into the open in Wings, which frames a young man’s homosexual epiphany as an initiation into modernist values. We understand why a Marxist would treat Sanin, The Petty Demon, and Wings as homologous texts; but it takes the knowledge of Kuzmin’s place in a rival clique to explain why Belyi tossed Wings in the same trash bin with Andreev and Artsybashev, while citing The Petty Demon as a counterexample.
Incidentally, Livak studied with Omry Ronen (see this post), lucky fellow.
Addendum. In this comment, John Cowan began a very interesting side discussion about “the use of lie to mean any untruth, whether or not said by someone who knows they are speaking an untruth and intends to do so.” I adduced the Russian verbs врать and лгать, saying “The former is venial and runs the gamut from ‘lie (harmlessly)’ to ‘bullshit’ to ‘talk nonsense,’ whereas лжёт is ‘He lies, and he knows he lies’; Anatoly responded that “врать covers a much wider spectrum than лгать, but the way I see it, the worst of врать is semantically equivalent to лгать, and in particular врать can certainly mean ‘lies and knows that he lies’.” He has now canvassed his readers on the topic, and those who read Russian will find it a useful thread. Summary: they’re about evenly split between those who see the difference as semantic (with лгать being more serious) and those who see it as one of level (with лгать being more highfalutin’).